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Sunday, May 5, 2019 | 8:00 a.m.
Why Care For Creation?
"Big Questions" Sermon Series
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 104:1, 14–23
The earth is no ordinary edifice but a cosmic temple.
William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation
We’ve heard the question for the day already, the first in our “Big Questions” sermon series, but I’ll state it again: Why care for creation? Isn’t God in control?
I need to admit here at the very beginning that I feel like the worst person to answer this question, because my care for creation feels to me so halfhearted and inadequate. Just last Sunday, the brunch I organized for Confirmation students and their families in Borwell Dining Room featured Styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery; we’ve begun stocking versions of those items made from sustainable materials, but I forgot to specify in my order that I wanted those. So plastic and Styrofoam it was.
I’m also not as vigilant as a person should be about recycling. If the receptacles for trash and recycling are not clearly marked, I rarely take the extra step of clarifying and making sure that recyclable materials indeed get recycled; I’ll often just put it all in the trash—with a wince and a shrug of the shoulders, for sure, but in the trash all the same.
So it feels wrong somehow to be up here leading our consideration of this very big question about caring for creation collectively, as a church, because I know how poor my care for creation is personally.
Maybe you can relate to that.
But if perfection were a prerequisite for speaking on a matter, the most important matters of morality and spirituality would never be addressed, and we would all just shuffle along feeling bad about ourselves and making things worse and worse by the day. Let’s not do that. Let’s try to be better.
Let’s take the second part of this question first. Isn’t God in control?
Jesus seems to think so, doesn’t he? Isn’t that the essence of what he’s teaching his disciples, then and now, in this part of the Sermon on the Mount we just heard? Is that not the implied assertion behind these repeated commands to not worry?
“Do not worry” appears three separate times in this part of Jesus’ sermon. God is feeding the birds. God is clothing the lilies and the grass of the field. Don’t worry; God is in control.
There’s good news in Jesus’ words to us, and we shouldn’t overlook it. God’s care is all around us, and we don’t have to worry about how to earn it or engineer it. Our faith is little, yet God’s care for us is constant. God values us. God feeds us with the fruits of the earth, including here at the Communion table. God clothes us. We have our lives and everything in them as gifts from a loving God.
God cares for us, so Jesus does not want us worrying. Every story in the Gospels where Jesus’ disciples come to him worried about something finds them corrected and taught a different way. “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.”
That word for “worry” can also mean “strive for,” and so Jesus says, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
This is the good news we start with: we are not called to worry.
But we are called to care, and caring is more than worrying.
The author of the New Testament letter to the Philippians writes to that church, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I have found that it is very difficult to care when I am worried. It is well-nigh impossible to pray and to express gratitude when I am worried, because when I am worried I want to move, to just do something. I don’t need to think all that carefully about it; in order for it to be relieved, my worry only needs activity—nervous, anxious, frenetic activity that fools me into thinking that I am responding meaningfully to whatever circumstance has me worried. Worry is the enemy of meaningful engagement with the world.
But God doesn’t need us worrying. God needs us caring.
That God calls us to care for creation is there in the beginning, in Genesis 1, where we have the founding biblical story of our vocation as women and men created in the image of God. And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
This is our story as people of faith. It’s not a scientific textbook but a primeval story that fills in the meaning of our lives as it relates to the world we inhabit and the God who created it. And that meaning is fundamentally to care for it.
This is the simplest way of answering the question, “Why do we care for creation?” Because God tells us to. Indeed, God created us for this purpose.
Isn’t God in control? Yes, but not without us. You see, we’re not off the hook. God exercises control by inviting humanity to care for that which God created. So God is in control as we live out our calling toward the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, and all the wild animals of the earth, every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.
Our calling, fundamentally, is to join God in caring for all creation.
And how are we doing with that job now? I think you know as well as I do: not well. Not well at all.
Our Affirmation of Faith for today, written in 1982, puts it pretty pessimistically: “Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.”
If the creation story is the simplest way of answering “Why do we care for creation?” this Brief Statement of Faith gives us the urgent reason we care for creation: we are threatening death to the planet entrusted to our care.
No serious person disputes this anymore. Even the most hardened skeptics of climate change, to name only the most serious expression of our impact upon the planet, are coming around. “Climate change is a reality,” said one of those longtime deniers this week, a Republican congressman from Idaho. “It’s not hard to figure out. Go look at your thermometer.”
Of course, people are doing more than looking at thermometers. People of good faith and strong standards of scientific investigation and explanation have consensus about this. I’ll share but one example, from NASA, which summarizes the science like this:
Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.
This is a sermon, not a science lesson, so I won’t elaborate on the human activities—mainly burning fossil fuels—that are warming the climate. There are dozens of books and films, websites and news articles, to explain this consensus in depth, so you don’t need a preacher to try and summarize it.
Why do we care for creation? Because there is little doubt anymore that refusal to do so will have grave consequences and much sooner than we thought. It’s not just about our children’s children anymore (as if that weren’t enough justification to act). It’s about our children. It’s about us.
Average global temperatures have already increased 1 degree Celsius since the nineteenth century. Last fall the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urgently proposed an international goal of limiting that increase to no more than 1.5 degrees within the next decade in order to prevent a catastrophe: “The mass die-offs of coral reefs, widespread drought, famine and wildfires, and potentially conflict over land, food and fresh water” (New York Times Editorial Board).
Somebody described that report as “a deafening, piercing, smoke alarm going off in the kitchen.”
That’s why we care for creation. Because if we don’t, the creation that’s left to care for may no longer be hospitable to humanity.
That’s an alarming way of putting things, of course. Still, it is doubtful that global political and business leaders have the will to take the steps necessary to avoid such a catastrophe.
Thankfully, the church is not waiting on the sidelines. Pope Francis issued an encyclical calling for a “cultural conversion” on how we engage the climate, and our own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), is in a process of corporate engagement with energy companies about the burning of fossil fuels and has seriously considered divestment from fossil fuels in response to the crisis.
It’s easy to describe this kind of church engagement with issues of politics and corporate behavior and science as a kind of political extracurricular activity. What, many people have asked, does advocating for environmentally responsible laws and policies have to do with the church’s core purpose of worshiping God?
Everything. It has everything to do with worship. Because at the center of our worship space stands a table, and atop that table are bread and the fruit of the vine. And every Lord’s Day when we gather in this space and at this time to pray, sing praises, and hear the Word, we also come to this table as Jesus commanded and partake of these gifts of creation. We cannot conceive of worship apart from the products of the creation we are tasked to care for.
Why care for creation? Because our worship of God depends on creation. Because the consequences for the planet and all humanity will be dire if we don’t. Because caring for creation is our fundamental calling as creatures created in the image of God.
That’s the why. What about the how?
It’s not hopeless, and we don’t despair. Despair is what worry becomes without a meaningful goal. To be sure there are meaningful things we can do, things we are doing, as individuals—disciples and citizens—as well as things we’re doing as a church. Care of Creation Sunday is meant to highlight those things and urge us all to participate in them, and our Minute for Mission will do just that.
Here’s just one. We’re piloting a composting project this morning. Our Coffee Hour this morning will employ compostable materials, and you will see volunteers stationed to direct you to dispose of those materials in the proper receptacles. Composting diverts decaying organic waste from landfills, where it contributes carbon dioxide emissions, and uses it instead in soil. You know, for growing food.
It’s a first step, and it’s a small step. But our faithfulness in our calling to care for creation is measured in just such steps as these. Amen.